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Colorectal Cancer Among African Americans: Understanding Risk Factors and the Importance of Getting Screened

Colorectal Cancer Among African Americans: Understanding Risk Factors and the Importance of Getting Screened

Mar 13, 2023

The 2020 passing of Chadwick Boseman, a talented actor known for his portrayal of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, shocked many people. How could a relatively young, seemingly healthy person die of colorectal cancer? 

Unfortunately, colorectal cancer is more common than many of us think, and African Americans have the highest rates of incidence and mortality of any population in the United States. Understanding colorectal cancer and its risk factors can help ensure you take the correct steps to protect yourself and your loved ones from this potentially fatal disease. 

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is a disease where the cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control. “Colorectal cancer often develops from precancerous polyps, which are abnormal clumps of cells that form on the lining of the colon or rectum,” said Peter J. Senatore, Jr., M.D., director of the Rectal Cancer Program at Inspira Health. “While most colon polyps are harmless, some can become cancerous if left untreated.”  

In the early stages of colorectal cancer, many people experience no symptoms, but as it progresses, symptoms are more likely to be prominent. Common colorectal cancer symptoms include:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Feeling like your bowels do not empty 
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Unexplained weight loss 

Although these symptoms may be due to something other than cancer, the only way to know for sure is by checking with your doctor. Colorectal cancer can be curable if caught early, but it can also be fatal if it spreads to other parts of the body. 

What are the risk factors for colorectal cancer?

“Colorectal cancer disproportionately affects the Black community,” said Dr. Senatore. “African Americans are 20 percent more likely to get colorectal cancer and 40 percent more likely to die from it than other populations.” The reasons for these health disparities are complex, involving a combination of both health-related factors and social determinants of health, including socioeconomic status, neighborhood structure and environment, access to healthy food and opportunities for physical activity.

Health-related risk factors for colorectal cancer include: 

  • A family history of colorectal cancer of polyps 
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Genetic syndromes that cause hereditary colorectal cancer 
  • A lack of physical activity
  • Obesity
  • A poor diet 
  • Alcohol and tobacco use 

Getting screened can save your life

“When colorectal cancer gets caught in its early stages, the disease is highly treatable,” said Dr. Senatore. “Colonoscopies are the best way to prevent and find colorectal cancers early.” The American Cancer Society recommends regular screening for all adults beginning at age 45. People at increased risk should talk to their doctor about starting earlier.

Routine cancer screenings can save your life. If you’re uninsured or underinsured, you may qualify for free colorectal cancer screening through the New Jersey Cancer Education and Early Detection (NJCEED) program. 

Click to learn more about colorectal cancer and screening options. 

Inspira Health is a high reliability organization (HRO), which means safety is the top priority for patients and staff. To make an appointment, call 1-800-INSPIRA.

Topics: Colorectal Cancer